Where does clothing end up? Modern colonialism disguised as donation

By Bárbara Poerner

4 years ago

150 billion of items of clothing. It is, indeed, a lot. And also it’s the average amount produced worldwide annually. At the same time, we use our clothes 36% less than 15 years ago. In this rhythm, amid hyper production and hyper consumption, we are left with disposability and pollution. It is a system of insistent colonialism from the Global North, masking their treatment of the Global South as ‘donations’, using them as if they were some kind of landfill.

African countries receive huge amounts of clothing items from European countries and the US in a system of donation; they are gigantic local markets where these clothes are sold at the lowest prices possible. These clothes have an interesting life story: usually, they have their fabric produced in Eastern Africa, then go to India or Bangladesh, where they are sewn up by women and turned into garments. Afterwards, they get exported for bottommost prices to European countries; 80% of garments produced in Bangladesh go there, according to the OIT. 

After a brief season in a fashionista’s wardrobe, a lot of these clothes are donated. Where do they end up going? Their birthplace. 70% of all clothes donated in Europe ends up going back to Africa, according to Oxfam.

We are no longer going to be their dumping ground.

We talked to Hadeel Osman, creative director and the country coordinator of Fashion Revolution Sudan, on how this dynamic evolves in Eastern African countries and what are the implications in the market and local population.

Barbara: How does the second hand clothes market work in Sudan and close countries?

Hadeel: In Sudan and across East Africa, second hand clothes take up a majority portion of the garment market and in many cases are the main source of clothes for citizens. There are several tiers of secondhand markets; street markets, boutiques and social media resellers. Street markets are typically the most accessible and affordable choice out of the three, as it relies on independent traders selecting and transporting the secondhand clothes which are imported mostly from Western countries, in containers that hold hundreds of thousands of tonnes. Boutiques rely mostly on curating unique, vintage, branded items and are usually run by fashion conscious traders who have either grown out of space in their market stalls or have repositioned themselves to target a different class of citizens, often increasing prices to seem more exclusive. Internet resellers depend on free social media platforms to reach their audience, as a much easier form of e-commerce and often charge for delivery. This method can either be separate from the other methods of selling secondhand or is adopted by all. In Sudan the most common and main point of sale for secondhand clothes are the street markets, with various attempts here and there.

Barbara: How and from where do these clothes arrive? 

Hadeel: These clothes typically come from USA and Europe, with a decent amount from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. The clothes that people in the West donate to their local and international charities as well as thrift shops end up being divided into two different piles. One is kept to sell locally and the vast majority are wrapped in bales and packed in containers that are shipped off to most African countries, entering through the sea ports. Other sources of these garments are from companies and traders who send their excess inventory or reject clothes that are unsellable due to malfunctions in design. In some cases in Sudan, these clothes used to arrive through charities and churches which used to bring these garments for the citizens living in camps across war-torn areas, which are then smuggled by traders to markets across various cities.

Barbara: Do you notice that the second hand clothes market affects the local economy in your Sudan?

Hadeel: As of right now, it’s hard to accurately tell as we have limited information available to us on both the secondhand markets in Sudan, along with the local textile manufacturing industry. Also, the current economic situation in Sudan has been in a steady decline for many years. Obviously this makes room for us in Fashion Revolution Sudan to research and find out factual information on this to see how we can contribute to uplifting the fashion industry in its entirety. However, as someone who lives in the country and is aware of the secondhand clothes market and the growing contemporary fashion scene, there is certainly an effect there because people are more likely to buy cheaper easily accessible clothes than more costly custom-made or slow fashion local brands.

Barbara: Do you believe that this problem can be solved? Whether through decreasing the volume of clothing production, or the subversion of the abusive vision from the US and Europe over African and Asian countries?

Hadeel: Definitely, it can be solved but it will take some time. The entire global fashion cycle has to be revised and changed from the first step, in order for us to see actual change and a reduction of clothes dumping in Africa and Asia. Many governments in East Africa have been imposing bans on America and Europe to either reduce or completely stop the import of secondhand clothes. This puts African nations in a position of power, which white supremacy and colonisation have successfully blocked for many decades. These same governments recognise how vital it is to support and even empower the local textile manufacturing industry as they now see the economical and social advantages of African fashion, which has been receiving a lot of positive reactions from the international community in recent years. If more governments join together, and this is a great opportunity for the African Union to be involved, and decide to control the amount of secondhand clothes that enter their borders, then a chain reaction will be born. After all, a large percentage of these clothes don’t amount to much other than waste, which if anything we need less of everywhere. By putting a legal, ethical and economic stop to the abuses enforced by America and European nations and the fashion companies there, we will no longer be their clothes dumpster. This independence can really fuel an artisanal and industrial boom across the continent.


Change gears, subvert the systems

In some Latin American countries, this practice also happens, mostly amid the flow US-Haiti: the Americans use up and throw away the clothes, and these end up going to the Haitians markets. An example is the book “Pepè”, by the Canadian photographer Paolo Woods, which compiles pictures of citizens from the country wearing T-shirts from North America with random and meaningless phrases.

It’s crucial recognize and analyze the practice of clothing donation, how it composes the massive and non-transparent fashion production chain, and the implications of globalised production and consumption. It’s very likely that a system which produces 150 billion pieces of clothing each year is going to produce surpluses. The key question is: why is it that African countries should receive these surpluses from the US and European countries, and pay the price for the overconsumption of others? And why produce so much clothing, when we haven’t been able to use them properly? 

A part of the fashion system shows the face of its racism when choosing African countries to be the cemetery for their own trash. The key to the problem is diverse and therefore demands the action of multiple actors. To begin to change, we must begin by lowering production, create the transition to new economies, and bring this modern colonialism and imperialism to the grave, enabling the fashion rebirth as a tool for regeneration and empowerment at any place in the world.